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My FFA story starts with a friend

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DeShawn Blanding is a friend who has inspired me more than anyone.

I first met DeShawn in the summer of 2018, when we served as national officers for MANRRS. Having completed his time as the Southern Region Vice President for FFA, he served as the Region II Undergraduate Vice President. While only a couple years older than me, DeShawn demonstrated a level of leadership, charisma, and wisdom well beyond his years. At the time, that intimidated me tremendously. As a national officer, I spent time in a room with 15 other ambitious, high-achieving student leaders. I felt like I had something to prove. But what I left that year with was not accolades and achievements, but with a lifelong friend.

DeShawn, a native of Manning, South Carolina, was only the fourth person from that state to hold a national office for National FFA. The last South Carolinian to hold national office before DeShawn was Robert Rish in 1967, about 50 years prior when membership was not open to women and before there was ever an African American national FFA officer. He was also a part of a small class of Black people who have served as national FFA officers — and a Black person had not held such a position in nearly 10 years.

Interestingly though, DeShawn never presented himself to be someone who was breaking historical barriers. He was just a kind, humble, and super-friendly student from South Carolina.

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Irene Lewis, DeShawn Blanding, and Dr. Christien Russell at the 91st National FFA Convention in October 2018 (Image courtesy of Irene Lewis)

DeShawn originally didn’t want to be a national officer. He talked it over with to a mentor from North Carolina A&T State University, Dr. Chastity Warren English, who said that running for a national office was something she wished she would’ve done.

“That resonated so strongly with me, because it helped me realize that this wasn’t only about myself,” DeShawn said. “This opportunity would allow me to be a picture on the wall for other FFA members to grow and develop, and also provide an opportunity to push the organization towards a place of addressing its inclusion, diversity, and equity issues — which is what my team and I focused on during our year.”

During our year of service at MANRRS, DeShawn and I grew to be close friends. We had a lot of shared experiences. We both were 1890 scholars at our respective Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), we loved our families deeply, and we knew what it feels like to be the only Black person in predominately White spaces.

“My FFA chapter was a chapter with mostly Black students and led by a black advisor,” DeShawn said. “On the state and national levels, that wasn’t the case as FFA is mostly White and culturally different, and carries a history and traces of systemic racism.”

However, his college experience was so different from mine because of his time with FFA. He told me his stories of traveling across the world with FFA, about his time visiting Capitol Hill, and of spending time in Japan. I was amazed by his experience, because before meeting him, I knew nearly nothing about FFA.

In October of that year, I got the opportunity to represent MANRRS at the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis. I was amazed by the number of students present, the uniformity of their blue corduroy jackets, and the energy and excitement in the room. I probably saw DeShawn twice in the busy shuffle of that week. One moment, in particular, he told me the story of New Farmers of America and how they were a space for Black young men in agriculture across the South. I never heard of this history, although I was familiar with the history of Tuskegee, Alabama, and the contributions of Black farmers across the South. NFA had a long legacy of leadership and innovation, with 17 national officers hailing from South Carolina.

It was at this moment that I truly learned what FFA meant. It was about legacy, pride, and a commitment to service. DeShawn actively demonstrates each of these qualities. At the end of our year of service for MANRRS, I remember feeling so proud to have served with him. Throughout that year, he was someone I confided in, trusted for advice and mentorship, and created a lot of great memories with him.

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Irene Lewis, Carley Fort, and DeShawn Blanding at the end of their year of service as Regional Undergraduate Student Officers for MANRRS (Image courtesy of Irene Lewis)

I have also been blessed to know DeShawn beyond that. Since our time at MANRRS, he has graduated from North Carolina A&T State University, worked for the Center for American Progress, Rural Coalition, and currently works in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. He is a visionary thinker who is passionate about social justice, empowerment, and liberation. He is driven to serve rural communities like his own. He has experienced love and loss, successes and failures, and remains committed to his purpose.

“It’s OK to be different and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” he said. “Your voice carries just as much, if not, then more, weight and impact because your experiences are different.” DeShawn embodies this daily.

As the holidays arrive, and we begin to reflect on gratitude, I am eternally grateful for my friend DeShawn. Although I was never a member of FFA, I am blessed to have a friend who has given me a piece of that experience. I am grateful for spaces like MANRRS and FFA that bring together students who are passionate about serving their communities through agriculture.

I am hopeful for the future of agriculture because of people like DeShawn.

 

Irene Lewis is a recent Master’s student in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University with a major in public administration with a focus on public policy and management. She is a south Louisiana native and food justice and access advocate.

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